Can this marriage be saved? A guide to culture change

Posted on February 11, 2011 by Janet Coats

Let’s talk marriage.

I don't mean marriage in the romantic sense – I mean in the melding of cultures sense. That’s what this week has been about in the journalism world, with two stories that have at their core the very tough challenge of bringing different cultures together to create something new.

We woke up Monday to the news that AOL is buying Huffington Post and putting Arianna Huffington in charge of all content. That’s spawned all kinds of opining on whether HuffPo’s distinct and successful sensibility will disappear under a wave of AOL bland.

And then on Wednesday, Allbritton Communications announced that it was moving its innovative local news site TBD under the control of the television station the company owns in Washington. TBD had been closely watched as a possible model for how local news might evolve on the web, through a mixture of original content and aggressive partnerships with a network of community sites. Now it seems TBD is destined to become just another television station website.

The TBD example has all the earmarks of a failed cultural marriage – high hopes and expectations, early promise followed by passive/aggressive power struggles and disillusionment. When the going got tough – and it looks like it got tough over issues of brand identity and sales – instead of uniting to work through the hard times, the union fell apart and everyone went home to mother.

It will be interesting to see how the AOL/HuffPo marriage goes. There is certainly a potential for a huge culture clash and for the kind of disillusionment that destroys these efforts after the initial glow of the deal fades. It will take leadership commitment to working through those cultural issues, to leaving behind old ways and adjusting expectations. It will be fascinating to watch how it all plays out.

Just as a marriage is hard work, culture change requires a commitment to sticking together through the tough times. I’ll torture the analogy a bit more. Here’s what I see as being the relationship keys to successfully wedding two different cultures:

  • Mutual respect. If there is the slightest hint of condescension or disdain in the relationship, it is doomed from the start.
  • Establishing common ground early. Two cultures bring different values and different practices to the table. It’s vital to identify and call out what you hold in common. Focus on those common goals or beliefs; use your areas of agreement as a framework for helping you work through the places where you disagree.
  • Honesty and transparency. All cards need to go on the table from the start. I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve been in within organizations trying to manage culture change where everyone around the table had a smile on the face and a fist in the pocket. The fault lines that kind of duplicity creates are almost impossible to overcome.
  • Managing expectations. Change doesn’t come quickly or easily. You have to build trust and understanding; that comes slowly.  Bringing two cultures together in the same building or under the same org chart and declaring them one is neither honest nor realistic.

As a veteran of the culture wars within newsrooms that were trying to meld analog and digital values, I have to say that I find this kind of work both intellectually engaging and ungodly hard. But it is work we will all find ourselves doing – whether our organizations are focused on journalism, education, philanthropy or business – if we are going to succeed in a digital age.

The old cultures of proprietary information, of command and control, of authoritarian decision-making, just will not hold. Those who resist that idea are doomed to fail – and fail they should.

After Allbritton announced its decision, TBD’s former general manager Jim Brady tweeted the line that sums up all this pontificating about culture change on my part:

“At good companies, the people who resist necessary change are pushed aside. At bad companies, they are put in charge.’’

  • Learn about these and other concepts used in TPF's approach to philanthropy.


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